• The World Digested

Say Sayonara to Sushi


Tsukiji is gone.

Tsukiji—synonymous of fish, of quality, of artisanship or of Japan-ness—is gone and gone for good. The fish market has gone over to Toyosu—the notorious and noxious manmade land, filled in with human trash then abandoned by Tokyo Gas—in the name of sanitation and renovation. Truly in the spirit of “no construction without destruction” (hail Chairman Mao) the announced and re-announced move had finally been actualized in the name of urban planning—planning for parking the people and cars of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics 2020. For whatever mayoral and financial reason, the move had been planned and abandoned and planned and abandoned so many times that when the move finally and actually happened, no one cared enough to cheer or cry. Life goes on—poison in water or poison in ground; in any case, the existence of poison should hinder some of the 10,000 mice from migrating over or, give them some food for some small thought.

However, why not give Toyosu a chance? Tsukiji itself was a landfill—its name means exactly that in Japanese. As a matter of fact, most of Tokyo east of the Imperial Palace is nothing but landfill. Even before Ieyasu united Japan and created the Tokugawa shogunate (and thus began the Edo period), he had started building up the barbaric Edo-Tokyo by chopping up Kanda Mountain (with an estimated height of 25 meters) to plump up his land-to-be and by shifting a river (Kanda River) while at it, too.

The birth of Edo created a new style of sushi—edomae. Edomae means “in front of the Edo Harbor,” and it represents the freshness of the catch and also the particular way the sushi is cooked. Contrary to what people believe—within and without Japan—sushi is not a piece of raw fish slapped on rice, but it started out as a fermentation method of preserving the fish, by using rice as the culture for the lactic acid bacteria. Instead of dainty canapés, sushi was stuffed and stinky fish. However, after a couple of hundred years of gentrification and evolution, sushi in the imperial Kyoto became sort of a bûche de Noël aux riz et maquereau salé (Yule log with rice and salted mackerel) (it is the time of year for another Michelin). By then, sushi was not merely about preservation, but also about flavoring; nevertheless, the flavoring was through maturing and denaturing, and freshness was the farthest thing in any count or prince’s mind, at least, as far as the ocean was from the central Kyoto—80 kilometers away on cow-driven cart—the court’s choice vehicle.

The new era brought prosperity. Construction boomed—which was Ieyasu’s way of depleting the coffers of his former enemies and current allies in the absence of war. People flooded into Edo as manual laborers; and to feed these hungry males, various fast food stands sprouted—tempura, sushi, soba, etc. Yes, the dishes recognized today as quintessentially Japanese were born in Edo, and not as some uber-posh Michelin food but as street food for the hungry plebian mass. Captured succinctly in an old saying, “fights and fireworks are the flowers of Edo,” these men are coarse, common and shamelessly short-tempered; they will not stand docilely waiting for old-fashioned log or box of pressed sushi. They wanted something quick on the go, something filling after a long day of labor.

Luckily, this time, the capital was located right by the sea. With the availability of fresh seafood, sushi was revolutionized and nigiri was born. However, this was still not the nigiri of the 21st century, but rather close to onigiri as it was a fist-sized rice ball with fish. Finally, the sushi was about freshness, and yet, without the modern marvel of refrigeration, fish was not going to stay fresh for long, edomae or whatnot. Besides, food poisoning was bad for business. Hence, along with new but natural preservatives—wasabi, vinegar and ginger—various cooking methods were invented for the sushi, which kept the fish and the rice relatively safe.

Cooking—yes, cooking. Sushi is a type of Japanese cooking. Toward the end of Edo, edomae was more than a stamp of freshness but cooking style—as in boeuf bourginion or Boston clam chowder. First of all, edomae makes the rice more pungent and acerbic with the red vinegar and more al dente. Second, but perhaps more importantly, edomae stipulates shigoto—literally, work. An popular and typically Japanese saying states, “those who do not work shall not eat”; and in the case of edomae sushi, the sushi is not worth eating if the fish has not been properly worked on, such as being aged, salted, vinegared, marinated, boiled, steamed, grilled or stewed. In fact, fish is rarely “raw” in real edomae as fish is always cooked, as in being denatured. While the world worships the raw freshness of sushi, the true edokko—the “Edonites”—searches for the works. For shigoto is the real art of sushi.

While there are many types of shigoto, stewing may be the test of a sushi skill. Stewing—what a strange concept it must be to the raw sushi foodies, yet nimono (stewed ingredients) is a traditional method of preparing sea eel, clam, squid, octopus and scallop and also kanpyo—the dried gourd strip. Within the genre of nimono, sea eel and clam are special and differ from the rest because each ingredient is first boiled, then taken out to rest, while the resulting broth is added to tsume. Tsume is a gravy, to which the slippery sweetness of each sea eel or the briny umami of each clam has been added, and then it is boiled and reduced over days and months and years, into a dark, thick and savory caramel. Tsume is the crown jewel, the heirloom, the essence of a sushi restaurant. The joy of dining at shinise—restaurants with heritage—is to taste their vintage tsume. No doubt it is important to source good sea eels and clams, from Tsukiji or Toyosu or better yet, directly from the source, but it is crucial to get the tsume right: right—not because it is rich and heavy, but right for the right reason—so that it is the right match for the acidity of their rice, right for the silkiness of their sea eel or chewiness of their clam since each sushi restaurant has its way of texturing their sea eel and seasoning their clam: steaming vs. boiling, grilling vs. charring and gas fire vs. coal fire.

At Sushi Isshin in Asakusa, for example, the sea eel is boiled, then cooled in its broth. Before serving, each piece of sea eel is wrapped in green sasa bamboo leaf, them grilled over charcoal fire and then shaped into a nigiri. Dabbed on top of the sea eel, would be a dollop of Isshin’s 25-year tsume. Just imagine how many spirits of sea eels have gone into their tsume over the last 25 years, with yours adding another layer of depth. As for clams, Isshin first boils them then steeps them in a broth, fortified with sake, soy sauce and mirin for 24 hours. The next day, the clams are drained, and the broth is added into the clam tsume—another 25-year vintage.

As a matter of fact, Isshin has a 25-year vintage for squid and for octopus as well, which are best savored as is without the rice. Isshin’s octopus is another example of classical cooking: the octopus is boiled in a broth of coarse Japanese tea and azuki beans because they both fortify the depth of color and, of course, the flavor of the octopus so that the sweetness would linger longer and the mild flavor deeper. Although belonging to the same cephalopoda family, Isshin’s squid gets a different treatment. A small squid is stewed in its entirety, then charcoal-grilled right in front of the diners. The charred small ears are then meticulously cut off so the burned bitterness will not mar the sweetness of the squid tsume. Indeed, the squid tsume is surprisingly light and fresh, not too sweet or salty, but with a long caramel finish. And, should you be so fortunate, you get the squid with eggs—a jelly-like delicacy.

Tsume is great; nimono is wonderful. Just as there are those who prefer gravy and mashed potatoes over the turkey, or Yorkshire pudding over the beef, there are those who prefer nimono and rice over the tuna or bonito. But nimono is only a part of sushi, not the only dish. As more and more sushi restaurants eschew the tradition of “fast food” and move into the authoritarian omakase course (see Omakase: the Tyranny of Sushi), where can the old-timers go for nimono—the slowest fast food?

One sushi restaurant, 130-year old Miyako Sushi, still serves to fulfill niche of a need. For lunch only, and for a limited number only, they serve a nimono-don—stewed sea eels and scallops over rice with a few slices of octopus and a shrimp. Sure, the sea eels are rather small and thin, and the rice is too soft and too sweet for a true edomae, but it has homemade kanpyo—confits of dried gourd. By itself, the wizened gourd is nothing to gush over, but once the wisdom of stewing has been applied, it metamorphoses into beautiful tortoise-shell. Standing still in the ancient Kakigaracho (the town of oyster shell), Miyako Sushi has worked on their sushi for 130 years, and their shigoto is to be carried forth by the forth and fifth generations into 2020.

In 2018, Tsukiji is gone. Gone with the wind and time—we say good bye to Tsukiji, to the sea, to edomae and to the fish. Forgotten and foregone is the art of nimono and the artisanship of tsume, pushed over and brushed aside by the fatty richness of yellow tail, salmon and, of course, tuna. The modern hunger knows no bounds. Over-fed, popping vitamins and gulping smoothies; pampered, jacuzzied and massaged—as if we want to be the next Kobe beef ourselves. Or branded tuna—since now that the tuna is overfished, we are moving from fishing to farming. Farming produces fattier tuna in faster time, which is very fine for the fast-paced fast-food loving modern palate.

And we say goodbye to sushi for fish is gone, or rather, fish is done for. Although most of Japan looks the other way and pretends nothing more than another earthquake has ever happened, the Japanese sea remains polluted and toxic in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Fukushima sits right on top of edomae—the sea that runs through the Tokyo Bay area all the way down to Kyushu—where a lot of the fish farming is done in the warmer water. But the negative spiral does not end there for fish swim. The natural fish naturally swim up and down the ocean so those caught in Hokkaido are none the less free from potential pollution.

Take a bow and say sayonara to sushi.

Sushi Isshin

Address: 4 Chome-11-3 Asakusa, Taitō, Tokyo 111-0032

Phone: 03-5603-1108

Closed on Sundays.

Miyako Sushi

Address: 1 Chome-6-5 Nihonbashikakigaracho, Chūō, Tokyo 103-0014

Phone: 03-3666-3851

Closed on Sundays, public holidays and the second Saturdays.

#Sushi #Japanese #Seafood #Tokyo